On Rulings and Wildcard Skills

Original Dungeons & Dragons had three booklets in a nice cardboard box. These days you can download these booklets – or at least the cleaned-up versions of them – from Wizards via DriveThruRPG. My current project began with a read-through of these old booklets and re-considering how best to adapt GURPS to fit their approach.

While the Referee (aka GM, DM, whatever) is instructed to “draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld’”, I am going to defer this action initially. Going to Book III seems precipitous and I am most worried about creating characters, so I have decided to tackle this question first.

Book I: Men and Magic outlines three “classes” of characters: Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. There are also three other roles described: Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings.

It’s always been of interest to me that the original game was so unclear about how to interpret these racial/species roles, leading to the later Basic Dungeons & Dragons providing what has become known as “race-as-class” while the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game retained race as distinct from class. I think it makes sense to rule that Race and Class are separate in my game world.

But that’s not what’s bothering me. The biggest question for me is how best to maintain the quick and easy character creation of the original game alongside the stable and trustworthy mechanisms of GURPS. One solution I’ve been considering is using Wildcard Skills to simplify things.

GURPS offers Wildcard Skills:

…skills that cover extremely broad categories of ability. The names of these skills end in an exclamation point in order to distinguish them from normal skills; e.g., “Science!” is the skill of “all science.” Wildcard skills include and replace all specific skills within their area.

GURPS Basic Set: Characters, page 175

I like the idea of the utility of Wildcard Skills for combining two facets of Old-School play: firstly, they make character creation simpler and quicker; secondly, they offer a broad application of the “Rulings, Not Rules” approach to play. In other words, the Referee would need to make on the fly rulings to determine when the character could apply their Wildcard Skill in return for which everyone gets to forget about the rules for several GURPS skills.

For the purposes of our OD&D implementation, you would theoretically only need three such skills – one for each of the major character classes – to cover many of the non-combat and non-magical abilities of the characters. I think I would like to retain the regular use of skills for combat and spells to allow for more refined customisation.

The challenge is in figuring out which skills the Fighter!, Cleric!, and Wizard! wildcards might cover.

A couple of simple implementations exist: a) use the Wildcards suggested in Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers; b) handwave the whole thing and decide what they cover on the fly. I have some discomfort with both options because I don’t much like the flavour of the over-powered Dungeon Fantasy supplements, but neither do I like the idea of winging things completely.

In a lot of ways, I find the OD&D “Fighting-Man” class to be far too broad. Later editions have broken down the types into separate classes, such as the Barbarian and Ranger, and then given choices for a melee-focused or ranged-focused option within the Fighter class itself. But then the level of abstraction found in OD&D is such that any concept can fit.

Perhaps I am handwringing unnecessarily but there is a tension between wanting to utilise the stable and detailed rules of GURPS in a looser and more Old-School fashion. I am inclined to give the classes a single Wildcard and then offer fighting styles as additional options. For the magic-using classes, I aim to give them the broad Cleric! and Wizard! skills respectively, focusing on allowing choice over specific Powers and Spells.

Game on!

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